Are Nigerians unemployed or underemployed?

VENTURES AFRICA – The discussion about unemployment in political debates around the world has finally landed in Nigeria. A lot of this was seen in the run-up to the 2015 presidential elections, with a considerable part of the fact-based debates anchored on jobs created as against jobs that could be created.

A lot has been said of the definition of an unemployed person and how unemployment is measured, which varies from country to country. Some countries count insured unemployed only, some count those in receipt of welfare benefit only, some count the disabled and other permanently unemployable people, some countries count those who choose (and are financially able) not to work, supported by their spouses and caring for a family, some count students at college and others use household surveys to estimate, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Nigeria to all intents and purposes, aligns with the definition of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which also uses household surveys in estimating the number of unemployed. The ILO states that unemployment refers to those who are currently not working but are willing and able to work for pay, currently available to work, and have actively searched for work. This definition however puts a spin to what the results of a job creation survey in Nigeria would be; due to the social make-up of the Nigerians. A recent study by the Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation showed that Nigerian women lead the pack of female entrepreneurs in the world and are 4 times more likely to become entrepreneurs than their counterparts in the US. The reasons quite frankly, are simple, as while the US and many developed nations have unemployment benefits and other social security income for their citizens, the social safety nets in Nigeria simply don’t exist; so, it’s down to the simple options: to work or to starve.

This easily explains why Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest labour force participation rate in the world, according to the ILO’s 2015 employment trends report, estimated at 70.9 percent, compared with a global average of 63.5 percent in 2014. In addition, unemployment, at a rate just under 8% in 2014, is expected to remain stable across the region through to 2016. The youth-to-adult employment ratio is 1.9 – the lowest of all regions worldwide and without a doubt, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of working poverty and vulnerable employment across all regions.

Again, one seeks to ask, how this can be so with Africa exhibiting the highest poverty rates in the world. The answers lie in the definitions and targeting of core unemployed people (those who are currently not working but are willing and able to work for pay, currently available to work, and have actively searched for work) and the public’s mental addition of the sub-regions underemployed population (people not having enough paid work or not doing work that makes full use of their skills and abilities). While the number of underemployed people remains high within the region, the unemployment rate remains low.

Mr. Oladele, a secondary school teacher in Lagos, when asked how many unemployed people(by definition) he knew, responded by saying the society doesn’t have much room for such individuals. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat” he said, “even the bible states that. Of Course there are a few fresh graduates looking for white collar jobs who can fall into this definition, but hunger doesn’t keep them there for long, as before long they are forced into the streets to hustle a living for themselves”.

Yomi Fawehinmi, a pastor, says that he encounters one unemployed person to every five employed persons, as he executes his pastoral activities. He believes that more should be done to improve the quality of jobs in the region, as more and more people are falling into the underemployment numbers, all in the name of finding a job.

“My driver finished his HND since January”, he said, “His school has 2 batches of graduates that haven’t served, with his set to make the April batch of next year, that the definition makes him employed, even though he is underutilised, is just unacceptable”

Lead Economist and Acting Country Manager, World Bank, Mr. John Litwack, also believes that Nigeria’s employment challenge is more of underemployment rather than unemployment. This submission which is also contained in the World Bank report entitled ‘Nigeria Economic Report’ showed that poverty reduction in Nigeria was primarily an urban phenomenon as poverty remained high in the rural areas.

What are the realities however? It is that both underemployment and more importantly unemployment, be stamped out in Nigeria, as contract staffing and precarious work is a major problem besetting decent work and social justice in the Nigerian work environment. The shift away from regular employment into temporary work or jobs through agencies and labour brokers is having a deep impact on all workers, their families, and on the society. Erosion of the employee-employer relationship, often the basis of labour law, is leading directly to a growing number of violations of workers’ rights. So, while Nigeria continues to focus on reducing the unemployment rate, a bigger and more pertinent challenge of underemployment, continues to stare it in the face.